It’s not hard to conceptualize what a stalwart, iconic American fire department looks like; it looks every bit like the Boston (MA) Fire Department (BFD). From its ornate, vintage, historic firehouse architecture to the battle-worn, “salty,” passed-down leather fire helmets adorning its firefighters, the BFD is visibly one of the oldest and proudest fire departments with an amazing cultural heritage-even boasting of having placed the first fire engine into service in the United States in 1678.
Moreover, this culture is propagated internally through the peer bestowment of their famed moniker “Jake” onto those who earn the respect and prestige of being the epitome of firefighting royalty in the BFD-those who set the example and lead the way. And no BFD firefighter takes this responsibility lightly, especially in an organization with such a rich history, tradition, ethos, and an even richer future.
So when tragedy strikes an organization like the BFD, it shakes the very foundation of the entire organization and its close community. Having the right person to lead and more importantly manage the organization through crises and tragedy takes an unbelievable type of firefighter at the helm, one who must leverage the historic traditions and variables that make the organization great while being transparent enough to see where changes need to be made. But these changes don’t always fall at the feet of the fire department. Rather, they often fall at the legislative feet of city hall, where politics and neglect are found to be far worse than mismanagement by any fire chief or commissioner.
The BFD has had its share of tragedies and has always emerged better prepared for the experience, but a recent tragedy in Boston is being approached much differently than it has in the past. It is being approached by a man who seems to subscribe to a philosophy made famous by Maya Angelou that his organization can be changed by certain events but not reduced by them, a man who has the full support from a place he’ll need it most as he leads the BFD through this tragedy: City Hall. This man is Commissioner Joe Finn.
Back Bay Fire
On March 26, 2014, a fire in a brownstone on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood claimed the lives of two of the BFD’s most respected Jakes. This fire has polarized not just the fire department but the entire Boston and firefighting community. Two experienced firefighters from busy companies were lost during a fire that, according to Commissioner Finn himself, was the “perfect storm for tragedy.” Lieutenant Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy were stretching and advancing the first hoseline down to the basement of the brownstone and were overcome by rapid fire progress caused by an intense wind-driven fire. The fire was caused by improper welding without a permit in the rear of the structure, and the fire quickly spread throughout the basement and first floor, trapping Walsh and Kennedy.
The fire was dutifully investigated internally by the BFD and at the federal level by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Contributing factors listed in the NIOSH report included uncontrolled ventilation by a civilian, delayed notification, lack of hydrants, staffing, and lack of training for wind-driven fires. Prior to this fire, the BFD union, management, and City Hall found itself in continued disagreements over staffing, training, and funding of the fire department, with no progress. What’s more, at the time of the Back Bay fire, BFD management and City Hall were transitioning leadership and found themselves putting a new mayor and commissioner in the unenviable position of picking up the pieces of an organization reeling from years of political neglect and apathy.
After the fire, Boston’s Mayor-Elect Marty Walsh needed to find a new fire commissioner who had true rapport with the BFD’s members; an understanding of the community; and, most importantly, the ability to lead and manage the BFD while working productively with Boston’s elected officials. Walsh didn’t have to look very far, and when it came to someone who knew what the BFD was going through, firsthand, he only had to look to the person who was not just the incident commander at the Back Bay fire but the one everyone could continue to rely on in the BFD’s future. So on July 28, 2014, Joe Finn was sworn in as the BFD’s new commissioner.
In His Own Words
Commissioner Finn hit the ground running and began an overhaul of the BFD’s command staff as well as instituted numerous reforms and changes to the BFD’s operations-without sacrificing any of the BFD’s ethos and established traditions. Moreover, Commissioner Finn realized the impact that occupational cancer was having on the BFD and fire service and has become the de facto leader in pushing for cancer reduction and reform as a department head.
I was fortunate to be able to get some time from Commissioner Finn to answer some questions for FireRescue about his backstory and thoughts about his new position and what he has planned for the BFD. He has already instituted numerous initiatives and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. Here’s what he had to say.
FR: Please give us some background on your career and why you accepted the position of commissioner in the BFD.
Finn: I accepted the position of fire commissioner because I felt that I could make a difference. The past city administration severely neglected the department. Significant contract battles coupled with the wanton neglect demoralized the department. Mayor Walsh was elected mayor of Boston in November 2013 with the help of Local 718. He has been a constant champion of labor for his entire 17 years as a state legislator. He truly understands that the human capital you employ is far more valuable, and productive, if treated with respect and dignity. I had witnessed firsthand the breakdown of discipline and accountability. We needed to restore continuity and consistence back to our front line units, along with an aggressive training schedule that was previously ignored.
When the position was posted, I discussed applying for the job with my wife, and she encouraged me to submit my application. After interviewing with Mayor Walsh, I realized that he was absolutely committed to rebuilding the department and boosting morale. He was all in on restoring the BFD as one of the preeminent fire departments in the country. I was truly humbled when Mayor Walsh offered me the position of fire commissioner/chief of department.
FR: What is the current culture of the fire service regarding the exposure to carcinogens, and what do you think is the common perception about one’s vulnerability to cancer and occupational exposure?
Finn: If Boston is any indicator of the rest of fire service culture regarding the exposure to carcinogens, which I believe it is, we have a lot of work to do. I believe the fire service as a whole has been neglected during this recent recession, where municipal managers tightened the budget shortfalls on the backs of their fire departments. There was no room in municipal budgets for health, wellness, and fitness initiatives; they were viewed as luxuries, not as cost-saving measures for reducing workers’ compensation and indemnification claims.
We need to educate the entire fire service on the detrimental effects of carcinogens and toxins that they are exposed to. Average firefighters have a feeling of invincibility when they begin their career; they want to be accepted and thought of as “Good Jakes.” They believe that they can gain acceptance by showing the more seasoned firefighters that they can take smoke and are not afraid to take risks. We need to change that mindset, and to that end we need the more seasoned firefighters to buy into a safer and better protected fireground operation.
This is where the education comes in. Firefighters need to know the science and ways to protect themselves against the carcinogens and toxins that are killing large scores of firefighters every year. The average firefighter needs to know that it can happen to him. It is incumbent on management and the unions working together to make this happen-and it can be done.
FR: What was it that really made you take a look at the BFD’s culture and decide to take a hard stand on cancer and proper personal protective equipment use?
Finn: In 2014, the BFD had two line-of-duty deaths on Beacon Street in a five-story brownstone. That same year, we also lost four firefighters to occupational cancers, three active-duty members and one recently retired. Cancer has taken a hold of the BFD. Since 1990, we have lost almost 175 members to occupational cancer. We have a new diagnosis every three weeks. It was plain to see that something had to be done.
With the full support and cooperation of the union, we embarked on the production of an awareness video to get the attention of the members. The production included management and union officials, current cancer victims, family members of deceased firefighters, and a doctor. It was produced to get the firefighters’ attention-and it did.
We then made sure every member had two sets of turnout gear, at least three or four hoods, and new policies on the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). We also started outfitting every firehouse with the industrial extractors (washing machines) so every time someone was exposed to the toxic by-products of combustion they were able to wash their gear. The new policies on SCBA were simple: The only time you remove it was when you’re back in a clean environment. This is taking some time for complete acceptance, but it is moving forward. And with the proper enforcement by company and chief officers, this will work. Members are adapting, and we are already seeing positive change. The cooperation and support of the union has been outstanding, and everyone is rowing in the same direction.
Change for the Better
As can be seen, Commissioner Finn is tackling occupational hazards head on. He established the health, safety, and wellness division headed by Deputy Chief Greg Mackin and together they immediately instituted numerous reforms and initiatives.
FireRescue would be remiss to not list some of their reforms, and the list is extensive, but Commissioner Finn, Deputy Chief Greg Mackin, Mayor Walsh, and the BFD’s proud members deserve a chance for the fire service to see what can be done with the right person at the helm and the right support behind them. Reforms by Finn include the following:
- A Back-to-Basics program at the fire academy: A full first alarm assignment reports to the fire academy and conducts hoseline operations, search, Mayday, and rapid intervention team operations, all under live fire.
- State Academy Mayday program for chief officers.
- Thorough review of every standard operating procedure.
- Creation of the safety, health, and wellness division consisting of a deputy chief, a captain, three lieutenants, and two firefighters.
- Involvement in several national cancer prevention programs.
- Improved employee assistance program/critical incident stress programs. These include resilience seminars and spousal seminars and workshops to involve family members in these programs and process.
- Hired O2X to manage the BFD’s human performance program.
- Changed work schedules to 24 hours.
- Improved collaboration with other comparable urban fire departments.
- Annual health fair and diagnostic testing.
- Development of a more robust apparatus committee dedicated to procuring the safest equipment possible for the BFD and its firefighters.
- Apparatus driver program aimed at curbing apparatus accidents.
- Fire station facilities audit on firehouse conditions. Currently resulting in two complete firehouse rehabs and the design and construction of two new firehouses.
- Hired a diversity executive to increase minority recruitment.
- Retrofitting fire academy burn building to allow for more live-fire training on upper floors.
- Replacing current SCBA cylinders to 45-minute cylinders.
- Mandating the use of hoods for thermal and carcinogen exposure reduction.
- Increasing BFD involvement with the National Fire Protection Association on committees and standards.
- Installing diesel exhaust systems in firehouses and monitoring the impact of vehicle exhaust with the assistance of the Department of Public Health and the Dana Farber Cancer Center.
- Hand-picking subject-matter experts in the BFD to work on specific research projects.
As can be seen, these programs and initiatives portray Commissioner Finn’s dedication to his firefighters. He has also begun working firsthand with equipment manufacturers on research and development initiatives aimed at designing myriad products that reduce exposure and injury to firefighters. Commissioner Finn is also not keeping his initiatives close to the breast; rather, he is opening-up the BFD to share its experiences with the rest of the world, literally.
The BFD recently held a Health and Safety Symposium May 18-20, 2015, and is already planning numerous conferences to get all of the players to the table and figure it all out together. We at FireRescue will be following Commissioner Finn’s programs very closely and are excited to see what the BFD has in store for the future.
For related video, go to http://www.embryocreativegroup.com/videos/bfd_cancer.mp4 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXd5sb6fWNM.